Thumbs Up!

I imagine the first thumbs up might have come from somewhere deep in the cradle of civilization when, in an early simian celebration of opposable thumbs, one of our primate ancestors looked down at his or her hand, realized there was one digit unlike the others, and showed it off to a treetop friend: “Hey, Bongo! Look at this!” And with that simple gesture, humanity was off and running.

By the time the Roman emperors were offering bread and circuses to the good citizens of the empire, the thumbs up salute—pollice verso— was well entrenched in the common language of the times. Thumbs up and a gladiator’s life was spared; thumbs down and, well, you know what happened next. 

Fast forward to the Middle Ages: some lexicographers like the idea that thumbs up was the signal used by English archers to indicate that their longbows were properly strung for battle, specifically, that the fistmele (the brace height) was set at the appropriate length of seven inches, the approximate length of the archer’s fist with the thumb extended. Ready to launch, men? Raise your fists, thumbs high!

In more recent times, the ‘thumbs up’ signal has been used by soldiers and pilots—our modern gladiators—to mean “we’re ready” or “let’s go!” Time to move out, start the engines, launch the plane. It’s obviously a dashing gesture so now everyone wants in on the thumbs up act. On FaceBook, thumbs up means “I like that!” To a movie critic, thumbs up means “go see this picture” while two thumbs up means “go see it tonight!” Athletes love to give a thumbs up to their adoring fans: Arnold Palmer made it his signature gesture for years and now Phil Mickelson is the pro who carries on Arnie’s tradition. Basketball referees used to give the thumbs up sign to indicate a jump ball but sadly that’s been replaced by the dull but more technically precise possession arrow. Back in the day, baseball umpires used their thumbs to signal “Out!” but that has changed, too; now, they simply punch the air with a closed fist, whatever that means. Of course politicians have hopped on board; they love to flash a thumbs up to their base, and when Mr. Trump wants to double down on some new mischief, he will raise two thumbs up, one for each 15%. 

Whatever its provenance, in today’s stylized world, thumbs up has come to be recognized as the universal sign for “Yep,” “OK,” “Thanks,” “I like that!” Thumbs up is everywhere these days, even on our keyboards where the popular thumbs up emoji has become an all-purpose and comprehensible symbol that’s useful in any language—the most commonly accepted shorthand (so to speak) for anything signifying agreement or acceptance short of a non-disclosure agreement.

There are of course a few exceptions to the thumbs up rule. To a scuba diver, a raised thumb means it’s time to ascend which understandably can cause a bit of confusion one hundred feet below the surface. Hitchhikers use the gesture to ask for a lift, the thumb even pointing in the direction they want to go. In some cultures the seemingly friendly thumbs up once had a pejorative meaning: in some West African countries, Iran, and even Greece, thumbs up had a slightly more personal connotation but fortunately for world travelers these days, it seems the new, more positive interpretation is gaining traction while the negative old meaning has been ceded to that other digit, the index one. Whew!

So come on: keep up with the times; be like my granddaughter Annie and join the party. The next time someone offers you something nice, don’t say “thank you,” just flash a big grin and a thumbs up and hope you’re not offending an old Greek who has never even seen a smart phone.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick

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